There are late bloomers in the NBA, who only start to dominate a few years into their careers. Julius Randle is a good example as his career only took flight in the 2020-21 NBA season at 26, also making his first All-Star and playoff appearance. However, few greats like LeBron James and Derrick Rose have accomplished great things before they turned 23. James is the youngest player in league history to score 10,000 points (23 years 59 days old), while Rose holds the record as the youngest player to win an MVP title (22 years 191 days old).
Youngsters in the league at the moment are not taking a backseat as they have gotten off to an early start in adding their names to the NBA history books. The 2021 draft class was stacked, and we've seen several members of that class on display in the Las Vegas Summer League and 2021-22 preseason. Cam Thomas deserves special mention as he has been sublime for the Brooklyn Nets, making many wonders why he was selected so late in the draft (27th overall). As we anticipate their debut season, let's take a look at the rankings of their older colleagues who are 23 and under.
Words are not enough to fully describe how talented Luka Doncic is, especially when you think about how young he is and just scratching the surface of the type of player he could develop into. The 22-year-old has spent three seasons in the NBA but does a lot of everything, holding the franchise record for the most triple-doubles. Although he has failed to lead the Dallas Mavericks past the first round of the playoffs, he proved too much to handle against elite defenders like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George in their 2021 playoffs Round 1 tie against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Doncic also led Team Slovenia to their first-ever Olympic appearance and came close to winning a medal. Patty Mills' brilliance led the charge as the Aussies prevented them from winning the bronze medal. Nonetheless, Doncic is here to stay and could win the MVP and/or scoring title in the 2021-22 NBA season.
Jayson Tatum, Zion Williamson, Trae Young
These players could have easily ranked as Tier 1, but Doncic is in a league of his own which is why they get the next best thing. Jayson Tatum has been the Boston Celtics' pillar, and they could come crashing without him. The Duke product rallied the C's to one of the greatest comebacks in NBA history, scoring 60 to lift his team from a 32-point to an overtime win against the San Antonio Spurs.
Zion Williamson is keeping the flag of bully ball flying in a league that is focusing on three-point shooting. The New Orleans Pelicans are looking to build through the 2019 first overall pick as he is their best chance of winning. Williamson is the first player to average 25 points before turning 21, with the closest a player has come is King James' 24.99 points. He also set the record for best field goal percentage in the 2020-21 season after finishing with 61.1%, overtaking Hall of Famer Kevin McHale, who finished the 1986-87 season averaging 60.4% from the field.
Fans of the New York Knicks can better explain how exceptional Trae Young is following how he ran rings around them in their 2021 playoff matchup. Trae is lethal from range and is also famous for his floater. The 23-year-old is also a dime-dropping delight, with Clint Capela and John Collins beneficiaries of his lobs.
Ja Morant, De'Aaron Fox, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Deandre Ayton
Ja Morant and De'Aaron Fox are literal high-fliers, never passing up any opportunity to attack the rim with all ferocity. Fox is the fastest player in the NBA right now and could arguably have made an All-Star appearance if he was in a big market franchise. Morant has been class since his introduction to the NBA, winning the Rookie of the Year and leading the Memphis Grizzlies to a postseason feature for the first time since 2017.
The success of the OKC Thunder rests on the shoulders of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and that is a heavy burden for the 23-year-old. Regardless, the Canadian has risen to the challenge and has been the bright spot for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and will once again lead the youngest team in the league. Deandre Ayton had an incredible playoff debut with the Phoenix Suns, excelling at the pick-and-roll with Chris Paul. While CP3 and Devin Booker were the stars of the show, the Bahamian was the third-best player on the team.
LaMelo Ball, RJ Barrett, Tyler Herro, Michael Porter Jr., Collin Sexton, Jarrett Allen, Jaren Jackson Jr.
Tyler Herro has boldly stated that his name should be in the same category as Trae and Luka but, unfortunately, has not done enough to be ranked that high. He had a poor sophomore season by all standards, enduring a poor shooting spell. But with his offseason performance, we could witness something special from Herro in the 2021-22 NBA season.
LaMelo Ball and RJ Barrett look the most likely to move up one tier by the end of the season because of how much influence they have on their teams. Some could argue that he should already be on Tier 3, but the Charlotte Hornets guard is not quite there. Michael Porter Jr. is one of the favorites to win the 2022 NBA Most Improved Player award following his impressive performances for the Denver Nuggets last season. The 23-year-old averaged 19 points and 7.3 rebounds last season.
The Cleveland Cavaliers guard and center could shake things up in the East. Jarrett Allen is an efficient rim protector, while Collin Sexton is already an efficient scorer, white so many years ahead to continue improving his game. Jaren Jackson Jr.'s career so far has been marred by injuries, missing 61 games last season. However, his return to action has been filled with awe-inspiring performances, giving an insight into what to expect during the season.
Anthony Edwards, Rui Hachimura, Darius Garland, James Wiseman, Coby White
For a shooting guard, Anthony Edwards had a hard time shooting the ball, knocking down 32.9% on 7.2 attempts per game from three-point range in the 2020-21 season. Nonetheless, his ability to take flight is worthy of note, and he could show a lot of improvement in his sophomore year. Darius Garland's partnership with Sexton on the backcourt showed promise last season and is worth keeping an eye on in the 2021-22 season. He recorded career-best averages in points (17.4), rebounds (2.4), assists (6.1), and steals (1.2).
Rui Hachimura undoubtedly enjoyed playing with Russell Westbrook as both players developed a chemistry that bore fruits. He was also the second-best player for Team Japan in Tokyo for the Olympics. With the second overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft, the Golden State Warriors selected James Wiseman but are yet to see him at his best. In 39 games played during his rookie campaign, he averaged 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds. So far, Coby White has been inconsistent with his performances but has shown flashes of brilliance, especially towards the end of the season. But with more consistency and better ball protection, he could grow into an offensive threat in the league.